Friday, June 22, 2012

swansea


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“Oh yes, I remember him well,
the boy you are searching for:
he looked like most boys, no better, brighter,
or more respectful;
he cribbed, mitched, spilt ink, rattled his desk
and garbled his lessons
with the worst of them...”

~ Dylan Thomas, Return Journey

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While planning my travels to Wales, the prospect of exploring the places frequented and inhabited by Dylan Thomas became yet an additional pilgrimage. A lifetime of reading and admiring the brilliantly innovative poet from Swansea led to a thirst to know more. In this recent decade, I’ve regularly read Dylan Thomas’ work to audiences, notably his colorful narrative Child’s Christmas in Wales annually. Known simply as Dylan in his hometown, I had the supreme pleasure of a week’s worth of tracing the poet’s steps, seeing the places of so many of his words, and actually living and writing in his home. Enquiring of the Dylan Thomas Centre about regional places to visit, I was put in touch with the curators of both the Centre and of the famous birthplace and home at 5 Cwmdonkin Drive. As our long-distance communications evolved into collegial friendships, I’d sent portions of La Vie Graphite abroad, particularly with my many references to Dylan. Warm and spirited invitations grew out of these written conversations.


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The Dylan Thomas Centre, Swansea.

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Following two weeks in north Wales, my pilgrim travels to south Wales were met with an extraordinary welcome in Swansea. Months of correspondence helped strengthen bonds of friendship, leading to the most beautifully unlikely “welcome home” I’ve ever experienced- beginning at the Swansea central train station, and continuing to Dylan’s home, which is in the Uplands neighborhood.


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Dylan Thomas' birthplace and home : 5 Cwmdonkin Drive, Swansea.


Imagine being enthusiastically and genuinely welcomed home to a place you had never seen before. As these images linger, it seems to me this reception is a taste of heavenly spheres in eternity: the welcoming embraces, an extraordinary sense of familiarity, and all in places I had never visited until having arrived. As a Portland Mainer in Swansea, the many tastes of home include steep streets ascending from rock-ribbed shores, the seaport, and hospitable shopkeepers. As Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s stamp is indelibly on Portland, so Dylan Thomas is everpresent in Swansea. Dylan’s likeness and his words appear enshrined around town. Swansea was his birthplace and the city to which he returned after occasions in which he experienced life away from the region, and the returns permitted his continuum with Swansea to deepen as his voice seasoned with time.


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Longfellow mused about his “dear old town” of Portland, “seated by the sea.” Dylan referred to Swansea as his “ugly, lovely town,” and I recognize endearment in his expression. Port cities are gritty, yet when they are located on beautiful seacoasts loveliness abounds with their pervasive rainy gusts. “The fishingboat-bobbing sea” may have come to Dylan in nearby Laugharne, but it is indeed the same sea as Swansea. Settling into Dylan’s home was accompanied by the parallel gifts of vantage points. Peering from the same windows, I looked out to the same locations as he did. His paths, his childhood’s Cwmdonkin Park across the street, his back garden, and his front steps.


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Cwmdonkin Park, Swansea.

The neighborhood streets are clutch-straining steep, with railings along some of the sidewalks. Though the Uplands district of town is surely more now than Dylan’s description of, “a square, a handful of shops and a pub," in the first half of the last century, the terraced hilltop neighborhood evinces an intimate sense of self-sufficiency. Essentials around the square include bakeries, eateries, grocers, and a great stationer. Any neighborhood ought to be so fortunate. The view out to Swansea Bay and The Mumbles can be enjoyed from most streets, and this aspect immediately brought Portland’s sloping Munjoy Hill to mind.


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Above photo: Dylan Thomas wrote about this window view. As a child he said the ships rode over the rooftops.

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Living for a week at Number Five, I greatly cherished writing in Dylan’s house, and making myself at home. The curator of the house, who lovingly maintains Dylan’s home in its circa-1920 splendor, encouraged me to live in the house- to use the rooms, furniture, kitchen, larder, and tiny scullery. The gramophone in the parlor works. Dylan’s father’s study has his typewriter- an Imperial Good Companion- and it works just fine. I installed a fresh new ribbon on it, as I’d brought along a spare for the long journey. After all, it’s home. On the study desk, next to Dylan’s typewriter, I found the century-old inkstand intact and ready with two dip pens. The curator had filled the glass inkwell with new India ink. With great respect, I wrote with these tools, often looking to the back garden from the door near the desk.


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The sojourn was surely as social as it was introspective. After arriving to a rousing writers’ event out at Dylan’s boat-house in Laugharne, steeped in misty chilled air, festivities followed the next day at Number Five. I read some of my own writing, along with a portion of Dylan’s Under Milk Wood to two audiences. Between readings, with my typewriter placed at the center of the room, we all spoke about creative processes. Some people asked me about why I came to Swansea and about my history with Dylan’s poetry. A few asked about my Olympia Splendid 33, gleaming on its perch; I was asked if it was brand-new, and replied that it wasn’t, but rather had been spruced-up at a typewriter shop back in Boston. I spoke at some length to both audiences about pilgrimage, drawing parallels between visiting Dylan’s home, along with his favorite places, and visiting the Walden Pond and Concord of Henry David Thoreau. Exploring where the words came from, appreciation becomes a lived and beautiful adventure. Discovering the sources of words reveals their contextual colors. When written words are spoken, their native sounds are set forth. With this in mind, I told the audiences that the sounds of words are as important as their very meanings.


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Through the week in Dylan’s house, which was his birthplace as well as childhood-into-adulthood home, I found a few favorite perches of my own. Among his books, it was impossible not to smile when I saw a well-used and thick volume of Longfellow’s poems among his shelves of classic English and Welsh literature. As I like to do at home in Portland, I brought my writing out to Number Five’s front steps. Indoors, it was the palpable warmth of Dylan’s dining room that captivated me most. It is at the heart of the ground floor, between the bottom of the stairs and the kitchen, with a side door leading to a side walkway to the back garden. The entire house has an overspreading and welcoming warmth. It had been pointed out to me that Dylan’s mother, of warm and religious temperament, made the home especially hospitable. It was easy to imagine them together, while remembering my mother and my childhood self. Then I realized I was actually in the very home that is so tenderly described in A Child’s Christmas in Wales.


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Foyer at midnight.

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Dylan's childhood bedroom.

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Above: Kitchen; Below: Scullery.

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Above: Study; Below: Corner of Parlor.

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Kitchen door to back garden.


Though the entire experience is something I will treasure all my days, I especially relished staying up late at night and writing at Dylan’s dining table. Cwmdonkin Drive is a very quiet street, and the house stands peacefully at ease. The curators added a bottle of wine, along with my other provisions for the week. At night, I would toast Dylan in his home, while writing at the dining table. On one occasion, I wrote my toast of gratitude to the poet right in my journal. After visiting many places and listening to numerous stories, all with Dylan’s steps in common, I penned my words of thanks to the bard of Swansea who continues to bless others, long after his earthly life has passed.


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Writing at Dylan's family dining table.

Monday, June 11, 2012

taith pererin


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“Ton passage nous découvre
Le mystère;
Trace un chemin dans notre vie
Sur tes pas nous marcherons,
Jésus Seigneur.


~ French Cistercian vesper



In the transition before travelling from north to south Wales, I allocated time to explore an ancient pilgrims’ trail. The North Wales Pilgrims Way (also known as Taith Pererin Gogledd Cymru) traverses the northern coast, from the Lleyn peninsula to Holywell. I was able to walk portions between Caernarfon and Penmaenmawr, following paths that include mountains, pastures, ancient cathedrals, and castles. It had occurred to me that even before setting foot upon the slate paths of Snowdonia, I had already made a lengthy pilgrimage to reach these places. More broadly speaking than a travel to a travel, the vast pilgrimage surely includes the lines I write at this very moment.


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A soul’s spectrum of adventures are drawn together as one person’s continuing experience. Spiritual travellers journey within, as well as across physical distances of any duration whether across an ocean or across a street. Even the subtlest turns on our paths, or sounds in our audible range, can change our perspectives. Becoming attuned to the sources of our very being intensifies a constant longing for the way. Like the ancient Psalmist, pondering inspiration day and night, the pilgrim’s ear is sensitized to the Divine. All things visible endure but for a season, temporal and provisional. As the Celtic saints that walked pilgrim roads, followed by countless souls as myself, the most ancient of the Hebrew saints were described by Saint Paul as faithfully longing for the heavenly country that awaited them. Of such longings, C.S. Lewis interpreted the pilgrim’s inner discord as “our lifelong nostalgia,” our thirst to be reunited with the place of profoundest inclusion, and that it “is no mere neurotic fancy, but the truest index of our real situation.” An acute awareness of spiritual wanderlust is a reminder of my very portable life.


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Trails and roads known by the name pilgrims way exist throughout the world. In mediaeval times, three pilgrimages to Bardsey Island- off the westernmost shore of the Lleyn peninsula- was considered as efficacious as a journey to Rome. Such pathways lead to and through extraordinary sites long considered holy for the graves and places of worship they encompass. The Taith Pererin (rhymes with “blythe aware in”) in North Wales comprises old Roman roads, mountain lanes, wells, monasteries, Bangor Cathedral, and Caernarfon Castle.


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Above: Bangor Cathedral; Below: Caernarfon Castle.

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Unlike other trails I’ve hiked, such as Vermont’s Long Trail, or the Appalachian Trail in northern New England, these Pilgrims Ways connect towns and various structures. Even the loneliest looking mountain trails are never far from villages with houses, people, and hot tea. The terrain is vastly beautiful yet intimate, though quite different from the Maine and Vermont wilderness. That means one can hike many of the Welsh trails in regular street attire and shoes. Pausing along the trail at the steps of Bangor Cathedral was, for me, a merging of my steps with those of Saint Deiniol in the early 6th century, and my mother’s in the mid-20th century. Our own steps are rooted far beneath and beyond what we can see.


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Following the ancient Roman roads and navigating the pinched mountain trails are among my favorite highlights from the Pilgrims Way. Inland views revealed layers of valleys far into the distance, and coastal views opened to seaward horizons. Along the road, I could simply absorb the sights around my steps. It was all at once new and captivating, yet familiarly parallel to Maine’s coastal landscape. Discoveries presented themselves to me at every turn in the winding, steep, and narrow pathways. Without reminder or effort, each stride became a treasure. Every step upon slate shard, mudded pasture, and sand faced up to the heavens and through my thoughts as gifts to be committed to memory.


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Amazed to find this "chair and table" perch in the woods of Penmaenmawr, albeit on a very rainy day, I returned a few days later to enjoy the place in sunshine and with typewriter. The Irish Sea is in the distance.

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Many years of working and waiting for the time I could plant my feet upon this extraordinary terrain hadn’t a shred of letdown. In fact, this far surpassed my expectation. Though I’ve climbed steep grades and mountains before, I’d forgotten about how arduous descending can be, and how the downward trails challenge as much as forward-leaning ascents. But the changing terrain could not upstage the sweeping expanse.


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Canopied only by skies, far away from closed-in spaces, my thoughts about God became more appropriately divine. Somehow, beyond my comprehension, my paths were known long before I breathed my first air. The change of perspective became a change in perception. Grandeur can be made woefully small, when the narrowing drudgeries funnel into still narrower portholes. Taking to the trails, especially as they ascended into Snowdonia, broadened the elevation of my vision into healthful panoramas.


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The Allagash backpack, beautifully made for me in Maine,
travelled on the pilgrimage to Wales.


Days filled with walking travels, exploration, and overflowing scenery concluded with an appetite for victuals as well as for reflection and writing. Hunger blended with a pleasant weariness amounts to a sort of wholesome fatigue which adds savor to supper. In addition, with Wales’ northerly latitude, evening light extends far enough to be able to write outdoors into the night hours. It’s easy to find the energy, somehow, to extend the day with the range of available light. When it was finally time to close the days filled with aromatic sun and rain, sorefooted miles, colors, and ideas, images of green hills and low clouds would visit my rest. And the pilgrimage continues, over distances and by spirit.

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Aboard the train heading to Swansea.
Above: A pilgrim's progress in 2012;
Below: The Pilgrim's Progress, in 1678.

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Sunday, June 3, 2012

noddfa


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“He that dwelleth in the secret place of the most High
shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty.
I will say of the Lord,
He is my refuge.”

~ Psalm 91



Following a week of exploring, visiting, and joining inherited history with the present in the Bangor region, I enjoyed some reflective time a short distance eastward. Penmaenmawr, a small coastal town, is also in the Snowdonia region of North Wales. Between the high terrain concealing many of the region’s old slate quarries and above the east-west sandy shores of Llanfairfechan, Penmaenmawr, and Dwygyfylchi is the Noddfa community. In permanent residence at Noddfa are the Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Mary. The sisters extend a heartfelt ministry to the public, with their spacious Victorian house and its terraced grounds, for retreats. The word “noddfa” (pronounced nodth-va) is Welsh for “place of refuge,” or “haven.”


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The composite experience of living for a week among the community of residents and retreatants, combined with peaceful environs and verdant landscape, provided the setting for a blessed sojourn. To be able to reflect within a larger journey proved to be a great way to consciously savor each day’s offering of moments. It was also an opportunity to simplify my paces before travelling south for the subsequent couple of weeks’ adventures. The repose provided spans for quiet gratitude at the center of an astonishing and dreamlike time.


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Over the years, reflective respite time has become a vital ingredient in my life’s progress. Finding time to slow my steps, even from necessary employment, has become increasingly vital. And the striving efforts intertwine with the contemplative stops. Beneath representative résumés recording job responsibilities and service are parallel counterforms narrated in years of my written journals.


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Penmaenmawr

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Canopied sidewalks provide shelter for rainproof strolls.


For this journey through Wales to be as much exploration as contemplative sojourn, I had planned my stay at Noddfa long in advance. The idea was for the retreat to be somewhere in the middle of these travels. This helped me to leisurely appreciate and retain the many fresh impressions that accompany visiting new places. Viewing the whole of life as pilgrimage, times of unguarded repose allow me to ponder concerns other than the usual survival matters gratefully interrupted. Rather than escapism, retreats are momentary leaps from indefinite conveyors. Healthful contrasts have taught me much over the years about the kinds of solitude that promote creativity and perspective. Employment trials become seasons between the retreats, so that the intermissions seem less occasional as brief seasons punctuated between tribulations. A balance struck among contexts often smoothens the terrain, soothing and spicing the old quotidian. Curiously enough, the respite times often lead to a willingness to return to the fray, similar conversely to the cravings for peaceful solitude during stretches of constant work. Blending together the apparent opposites together is a thirst for holiness, for clarity of mind, and for meaning, is a comprising desire to serve well with my abilities and resources. And such thirst is what sends me out and away to places of tranquility and rejuvenating simplicity. There are landscapes to survey, both exterior and interior. Another motivating factor is my clear memory of previous retreats. Recollections become a cherished library. Aftertastes from a personal history of pilgrimage travels have layered into depths of recollections that in themselves inspire.


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The Noddfa experience combines the essentials for a contemplative retreat. The generously proportioned house, which serves both monastic and retreat purposes, had been built in 1860 for Murray Gladstone- a cousin of Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone. After its life as a family retreat for the Gladstones in the 19th century, the house became a convent- later evolving into a combination of both convent and retreat house. The grounds are on a slope between ocean and mountainous terrain, and the Noddfa house is amidst gardens, trails, and woods. The Sisters’ welcoming warmth is sensed throughout Noddfa, and the mansion-like house has an assuringly cozy, unpretentiously practical, and relaxed ambiance. Fellow retreatants blend into the cordial hushed tones of the place, and two fortunate cats make themselves very much at home on the first floor. All present share meals together in the enormous dining room, and a portion of the house has been made into a chapel for community prayers and Mass.


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The amiable and completely undemanding environment is ideal for me. My preferred retreats have always been the “unguided” variety. The Holy Spirit is what ultimately gives life, and this can be really sensed in a peaceful environment that is free of anxiousness. At Noddfa, I found the house and its immediate grounds equally as fascinating as the nearby villages and the mountainous seaside landscape. My neighbors were as encouraging as the beautifully inviting green paths. At numerous perches, both outdoors and indoors (during rain storms), I made many occasions to write- greatly appreciative of such unfettered space and time. My notes came to the subject of refuge- noddfa- of shelter. It may well be that shelter is sought to be away from distracting noise, worries about status, sustenance, past regrets, and future prospects. But it is equally a refuge into times and settings that allow for an enjoyment of sights, tastes, and interactions that are life-giving. And from the sheltering refuge is an entrance into, rather than an exit from, the horizons that call. Indeed, the paths of Noddfa merge with the Conwy Old Road, through Penmaenmawr, and to the wide skied open seas.



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In Noddfa.